A Wild Justice: by Francis Clifford

Sometimes the purpose of our cultural custodians is to award posterity to their darlings; we are given a steady stream of articles, reprints and documentaries about, say, Le Carre, or Graham Greene, etc; however, those authors not read by our custodians are designated forgotten and hence their cultural impact is nil. This, of course, is a vicious circle, because if books go out of print and living memory is finite, then the works of certain authors might as well not exist at all. Despite this widespread cultural censorship, ghosts do appear, but our custodians do not have the sensibilities to see them; rather it is left to genre readers to communicate with the out of print.

Francis Clifford was the author of many excellent thrillers which sold well over three decades. Two were adapted into films; one (The Naked Runner) starring Frank Sinatra, no less, was passably good; the other, Act of Mercy, was filmed as Guns of Darkness, quite ineffectively, as the recent Network DVD release allowed me to discover. For the most part Clifford's cold war thrillers are his best; these are always complicated by a unique form of suspense in which the act of page-turning is almost a victimless crime. There are also several Nazi-hunting thrillers, and a wonderful little book called The Third Side of the Coin, in which a desk clerk at a British airport steals a suitcase full of money and flies to Spain, where he is apprehended by an earthquake. There are three war novels, the best of which, Honour the Shrine, is probably the most moving war story out of the Far East that I have ever read.

Clifford had several Irish connections in his personal life which led him to write two Irish-themed books. Drummer in the Dark and A Wild Justice. The former is poor by his usual standards, but the latter, with a little tweaking, is a remarkable book altogether. The action of A Wild Justice takes place in the ruins of an Irish city; the city is unnamed, as is the battle by which it has been destroyed - we are left simply to assume there has been another rising, though which rising and by whom are not specified. The survivors seek a means of escape through a maze of half-collapsed houses, factories and shops, while the army routinely bomb the ruins to prevent any escape. Within these once lived-in shells another kind of life takes place, a desperate struggle for survival that encompasses the full range of human cruelty, from murder to rape; and beyond this is the ultimate Irish crime - betrayal, the advent of which turns freedom fighters to terrorists. It is sometimes remarked that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, but when both share a cellar with only one exit the distinction is most brutal. Of course there is no real resolution except tragedy; the surviving rebels are doomed, and as their cause is broken down to emotional rubble, so they seek to play dead therein.

The troubles did not throw up many successful Irish thrillers; most were a mix of propaganda and/or special pleading. To my mind the best of them was probably Benedict Kiely's Proxopera. A Wild Justice matches Kiely's novel in power and brevity and is greatly helped along by its anonymity of venue, an idea I would have taken a lot further. Because the sheer scale of destruction wrought in Clifford's novel goes well beyond anything experienced during the troubles - rather the book reads like an alternate history in which a civil war is fought and lost by those who wargamed it to death.

Ossian's Ride: by Fred Hoyle

One time Astronomer Royal Fred Hoyle had a long career as a science fiction novelist; his early books are undoubted classics - A for Andromeda, for example, is perhaps the finest message from space novel written, despite beginning life as a BBC television series, now sadly lost. The Black Cloud is deservedly Hoyle's most famous novel, in which a sentient gas cloud interposes itself between the Earth and the sun, leading first to a scientific coup d'etat and then near apocalypse. Later in his career Hoyle began co-writing with his son, Geoffrey; the result was a serious reduction in quality, if not in imagination, as Geoffrey's main purpose appeared to be spicing his father's ideas with then fashionable ideas about sex and violence - these books are dated by their social aspect, while their science remains as sure-footed as Hoyle's prose. The one exception is The Fifth Planet, their first collaboration, a splendid novel by any standards.

Between The Black Cloud and Andromeda Hoyle penned one of the few science fiction stories with an Irish setting, Ossian's Ride. The novel is set in the near future, 1970, though later editions bump the date to 1980, no doubt to accommodate reprints. Ireland has become an industrial powerhouse; it has sealed itself behind an "Erin Curtain" of security and innovation and is governed by a mysterious and paranoid entity - the Industrial Corporation of Eire (ICE). The origins and aims of this corporation are obscure, and despite attempts by foreign agents to penetrate the curtain, remain so; invariably the agents are all killed or disappear or defect. The little information that makes its way to the outside world speaks of burgeoning nuclear prowess and contraceptive pills made from turf. The British Foreign Office is particularly chagrined by its failure to plant an agent inside ICE. In desperation the British recruit a newly graduated scientist and, after the briefest of briefings, send him to Ireland with no more mission than he can keep in his coat pockets. The thinking appears to be that an amateur with no mission may fare better than a professional. And, at first, they appear to be correct. Thomas Sherwood blunders into Ireland like no kind of spy; his lack of technique wrong-foots both ICE and agents of other powers, who develop an uncanny knack of taking each other out while allowing Sherwood to escape unscathed. Eventually his luck runs out and he is captured by ICE, or rather, he arranges his own capture. It is at this point Sherwood departs a thriller and enters an sf novel; he wakes with his memory wiped (though his personality is intact) in the new and sealed city of Caragh, the description of which seems rather pertinent to the modern corporate architecture of steel and glass. He is ostensibly a worker drone, but he is asked to do no work and finds that he is under heavy surveillance. Slowly regaining his memory, Sherwood escapes, but now his blundering seems guided; his mission appears to have been co-opted, curiously accounted for, and as he draws closer to the secret at the heart of the corporation, danger recedes to make way for a quaint sense of wonder.

I love this book, I do surely, struck as I am by an image of the world's combined agents tramping across Irish bogs to infiltrate a shining new city with industrial espionage in mind. It has been called Buchanesque, with some justification, but the book of which I'm most reminded is Eric Ambler's The Dark Frontier. In that novel a scientist who believes himself to be a super-hero embarks on a similar mission in a Ruritanian state; and this is somewhat to the point of Ossian's Ride. Ireland, while a British isle, is off the map. You can't really look to the mythology of the title to give it context; rather, Ossian's Ride re-partitions Ireland; where there was once north and south, there is now human and inhuman.